Issue Date: December 7, 2015
Grad School Stress
The article “Managing Grad School Stress” by Linda Wang was most welcome (C&EN, Sept. 14, page 59). In 45 years as a student, postdoc, and faculty member, I have seen almost all graduate students stressed at some point.
The article omitted an important group of people who in many cases act as psychologists, counselors, and relief valves: support staff, especially secretaries and administrative assistants. Frequently going beyond their job descriptions, they provide perspective, sympathy, and a human touch that students sometimes feel is lacking from some faculty. I know of at least one Ph.D. chemist who spent so much time doing counseling instead of chemistry in a central lab facility that she changed careers to social work.
While not always recognized for their contributions to graduate training, these supporting players are beloved by the students and essential in these increasingly stressful times.
Wang’s excellent article on managing grad school stress cut close to the bone for me. While I was a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1950s, one fellow student did, in fact, kill himself. I, too, might have gone that route, or at least dropped out of the program, had it not been for the intervention of two perceptive and sympathetic faculty members: my formal research director, professor Isadore Perlman, and my de facto research mentor, professor Robert Connick.
State College, Pa.
I read your article on managing graduate school stress with great interest as it provoked recollections of my own experiences in the early 1980s. One paragraph in particular suggested that advisers are not blameless, but why? Could this be a result of their own experiences that, in most cases, have not been punctuated by life in a nonacademic environment?
When I started my first job at a pharmaceutical company, it took me several weeks, if not months, to become accustomed to the concept of a weekend, let alone an evening. Testimony of graduates whom I hired, years later, would sometimes include tales of adviser-originated phrases like, “If I’m here from 8 AM until 10 PM seven days a week, then you should be too,” “Don’t waste precious research seconds,” and “Why on Earth would you want to take a day off [to spend time with your spouse, partner, family, etc.]?”
It was always far more impressive to see a person who achieved outcomes and managed their time efficiently, rather than one who prided himself or herself on sheer physical presence in the lab or office. Time management and life balance can be taught, but it is best taught by example lest those less experienced in both have nothing by which to measure their achievements in such skills.
Young academics striving for tenure are in their own (sometimes self-made) pressure cookers, may have had no training themselves in a more realistic environment, and could benefit greatly from learning by some of the examples described in the article. Overall, moderation in all things (including moderation—sometimes, but not always, the extra effort is essential, just not continuously) would seem to be the best policy!
James T. Palmer
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